No complaint left unvented


Meeting: Participants at an annual gathering of state reading teachers heap scorn upon a federal education initiative.

March 21, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE ANNUAL meeting of Maryland's reading teachers is a good place to judge the mood of the moment.

Each March, several hundred teachers from all over the state gather at Hunt Valley. Many are specialists who spend their working days on reading, but others are traditional elementary instructors who cover the waterfront, from reading to science, social studies and math.

This year they are mighty peeved.

Two years ago - the last convention I attended - the teachers had just said sayonara to the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program. To comply with the spanking-new No Child Left Behind Act, a new test was on the way. The teachers were uneasy about the Maryland School Assessment, which for the first time would yield results for individual children, but there was a sense of excitement. After a decade with MSPAP, a new era had dawned.

Last week, the mood was almost surly. I got an earful over lunch about the shortcomings and inconsistencies of No Child Left Behind, and during a panel discussion I moderated after lunch, teachers applauded every negative reference to the federal legislation.

No one criticized what panelist Patricia M. Richardson, St. Mary's County superintendent, called the "aspirations" of No Child Left Behind. "Children in our most seriously failing schools deserve to be in a place where they can get a good education," Richardson said.

But the act is "deeply flawed," said Barbara A. Kapinus, a policy analyst for the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union and the same outfit termed a "terrorist organization" recently by U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige.

Kapinus was applauded as she outlined the act's faults. Its "whole tenor is negative," she said, "pointing a spotlight on failures." It measures success in only two subjects, reading and math, and relies on only one test each year in each subject. This has led to a "narrowing of the curriculum," she charged, with less attention paid to science, social studies, art and even writing.

Indeed, I heard more horror stories about MSA than I used to hear about MSPAP. One teacher said her daughter's fifth-grade class in Prince George's County hasn't read a novel all year, so busy are the teachers "teaching to" the new test.

It's not the test itself that rankles. Maryland teachers, after all, were consulted in developing it. But the strict way No Child defines "adequate yearly progress" and "highly qualified teacher" drives the educators mad. On the defense in the past month, federal officials have allowed some flexibility in rural states that couldn't hope to comply, but the act's provisions are viewed as unyielding, unreasonable - and as an "unfunded mandate."

On the day MSPAP was officially laid to rest in 2002, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick predicted, "In two years people will be weeping over the loss of MSPAP. Mark my words."

She was right. Because the new test measures the performance of individual students, it also measures the performance of individual teachers. Under MSPAP, teachers in low-performing schools shared responsibility. But now principals - and parents - can look at the scores in Miss A's classroom and compare them with those in Miss B's.

Because Maryland set a high bar when it established the passing scores for the MSA, about 500 of the state's 1,400 schools - more than a third - failed to make the required "adequate yearly progress" the first year under No Child Left Behind. That's a lot of unhappy teachers.

Some of them cried when the scores came back to the schools, said Richardson. But there weren't nearly so many tears in Alabama, which had set its bar low. Only 4 percent of Alabama's schools failed the dreaded "AYP" test, noted Rich Long, director of government relations for the International Reading Association. Does this mean Alabama's schools are 8 1/2 times better than Maryland's? Of course not. But people might be fooled into thinking so.

While the Maryland reading teachers were meeting - and complaining - in Hunt Valley last week, the U.S. Education Department was in full-court press, trying to salvage No Child Left Behind. You could almost hear the law's foundation cracking from the heavy weight of regulation.

The question is whether the act can be fixed without abandoning goals that everyone agrees are noble. Or whether the schools will have to go back to square one. Well, there's this battery of tests they used to call MSPAP. It's on the shelves of West Baltimore Street, just waiting for an encore.

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